Once upon a time, 21 Fourths of July ago, I helped staple my 62-year-old mother into a red, white, and blue firecracker costume.
This was, she tells me now, not her idea.
None of it was her idea.
Blame her sister, Helen Marge, who was 70 at the time and dressed as Betsy.
And that was only the half of it.
The other half was the canoe.
My family has been spending summer vacations at Queechy Lake in Canaan, New York, for—forever. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s not fancy and the winters are hard. The only hotel on the waterfront has been “closed for renovations” for years.
Have you ever seen a giant Shaker basket glide along the water to the song “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple?” I have.
There were no conceptual limits. Only at the Queechy Lake Boat Parade could you see a two-tiered motorized raft version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame or a motorboat tribute to Miracle on the Hudson. Have you ever seen a giant Shaker basket glide along the water to the song “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple?” I have.
My aunt and my mother were great audience members every year, but they were never participants. My family didn’t own any motorized boats, for one thing. Also, between my mother and my aunt, they had 16 kids (Mom: 5, Helen Marge: 11).
Helen Marge and my mom were each other’s only siblings, but Helen Marge was nine years older than Mom. Helen Marge and her husband, Vincent, had settled close to Albany, where she and Mom had grown up, while my mother had headed to New York City after she graduated from college and married my father, a jazz-loving lawyer, at the ancient age of 26 and then moved to Pittsburgh. The sisters really only saw each other in the summer, at the lake. And there were all those kids.
Then, when he was 57, my father died. And a few short years later, my Uncle Vincent died. The widowed sisters finally had some time and space, together and apart.
And what Helen Marge wanted to do with that time and space was compete in the Queechy Lake Boat Parade with her only sister.
In a canoe.
“I didn’t want to do it. At all,” says my mother. “She guilted me into it.”
But my aunt had already bought a rather impressive Betsy Ross costume, complete with kerchief. She had filled out the application forms, gotten a number to display on the boat. My mom negotiated. No historical costume. Maybe she would dress…as a firecracker? Mom bought red, white, and blue posterboard for the costume and blue and white contact paper for stars to put on our red canoe.
And there, on the day of the boat parade, the posterboard and the contact paper lay. Uncut.
That first year, my mother and aunt won “Most Historical Boat.” My sister Kate said, “That means you were the oldest broads on the lake.”
And then, to the water. Right after my aunt refreshed her lipstick. If she was going to be Betsy Ross, she was going to look good.
My mother and my aunt have been canoeing since they were kids. It never occurred to them that they couldn’t paddle a good-sized lake. After they got in, the canoe just…flowed. As the canoe made its turns, I heard the laughter, the cries of surprise from all around the lake. While all the other boats churned the water, theirs flew. “I think we were in the ‘we’ll show them’ mode,” my mother recalls, 21 years later.
They won “Most Historical Boat.” My sister Kate said, “That means you were the oldest broads on the lake.”
The competition would continue. The next year, Helen Marge was Washington crossing the Delaware, complete with cape and jaunty hat, an aureole of Washingtonian white hair framing her face. My mother, who had hurt her back, dressed as a loyal soldier while my sister Kate, in cap and pantaloons, rowed them both across the lake. Another year they pulled off a salute to the Gay ’90s. Their most elaborate and least understood entry: duck hunters in a duck blind.
And never, ever in a motorized boat.
Helen Marge is gone now. But the boat parade became just one of her adventures. In her 70s, she began to travel and run 5Ks. On the phone, my mother asks me to remind her—how old were they when they first did the boat parade? 62 and 70.
“Wow,” Mom says. “If I had known I was that old, I wouldn’t have done it.”